Metamorphoses | Study Guide


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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the themes in Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses.

Metamorphoses | Themes



Metamorphoses is a series of myths in which gods and mortals transform, or change their bodies to become something else. The gods often make themselves look like humans so they can visit Earth and interact incognito with people. Jupiter, for example, takes on any number of disguises, such as turning himself into a bull, to pursue mortal women. The gods are also responsible for the many amazing transformations humans undergo in the poem, as they turn mortals into trees, birds, animals, stars, streams, and even statues. These transformations occur for a variety of reasons: to punish (and often to get revenge); to reward; to comfort; or to keep from harm. The transformations sometimes occur at the request of the mortals themselves, such as Daphne, who begs to be transformed to escape being caught by the god Apollo. As he embraces her she turns into a tree on the spot.

Ovid's poem represents a changeable world. Emotions such as love, lust, grief, and anger may arise suddenly and powerfully. Those emotions then influence the course of events by sparking the transformations of characters' bodies into something new and strange, as external changes reflect internal ones. Major events such as the Trojan War or the founding of Rome also function to cause change, creating upheavals that rearrange the political landscape. Metamorphoses jumps across time and space, from the world of the mortals on Earth to the home of the gods on Mount Olympus to the world in which Ovid himself lived. It moves from the creation of the universe to Augustus's reign as the first Roman emperor. The poem itself is always changing, too, as it moves from one myth to another and another, until the stories blend together. It's significant that Ovid ends Metamorphoses with the portrayal of the philosopher Pythagoras, who sees change in every aspect of existence all around him. He explains that the only constant thing in life is change—it defines what it means to be alive.

Power and Revenge

Power and revenge are inseparable in Metamorphoses. While the division of power is clear, with fate ruling everyone and the gods ruling humans, power struggles constantly erupt and spawn the majority of myths. Such struggles exist between mortals, between gods, and between mortals and gods, and anything can spark them. Some are about love and sex. Juno and Jupiter constantly fight over his infidelities and the children they produce. Mortal women are always on the run from gods who want to sexually overpower them. Other power struggles are about who is the better artist (Arachne's weaving competition against Minerva) or the better warrior (Ulysses versus Ajax; Achilles versus Cycnus). The number of military conflicts and brawls that spring up across the poem (the Centaurs versus the Lapiths; the entire Trojan War) show how ever-present the struggle for control and dominance can be. For example, Venus ensures that Hades falls in love with Proserpine, whom he abducts so that Venus can gain more power in the underworld. In doing so Venus unwittingly sets off another power struggle, one of the most intense in the poem, between Hades and Ceres, Prosperine's mother. Whatever the cause, power is the defining undercurrent of many of the poem's transformations. Mortals are transformed so the gods can reassert their dominance, particularly if they feel disrespected (Actaeon; Tiresias). Mortals are also transformed so they can escape being dominated by someone else (Daphne; Caenis).

Revenge is a response to a loss of power. By doing something terrible to another person (or god, in some cases here), the person who gets revenge feels they have restored the balance of power. Beyond that the avenger may want the person or god who wronged them to feel even more pain than they originally caused, as revenge shades quickly into sadism, or taking pleasure in another's pain. In this sense revenge may not always be just in Metamorphoses, but it is remarkably effective. The gods are wrathful and quick to show vengeance for any perceived wrongdoing, whether it is legitimate or not, and this is a universe in which gods can turn mortals to stone or into an animal in an instant. The revenge gods take against mortals is typically a way to demonstrate their ultimate power at the mortal's expense. Apollo gives King Midas donkey ears after Midas argues that Apollo should not have won a music contest in one of the poem's more humorous transformations. Juno takes out her fury on anyone who has sex with Jupiter, even if he raped them. The list of his conquests is long, and Juno's punishments are some of the most extreme in the poem and often center on mothers and children (Io; Semele; Alcmena). The gods also fight with each other for power. Venus takes revenge on Apollo for revealing her affair with Mars by making him fall in love with a woman whose father kills her after Apollo rapes her.

Fate and Free Will

In Metamorphoses the actions of the gods often define the lives of mortals, who are powerless to stop them, bringing up the question of whether mortals have any free will at all. Yet prophets abound, which suggests there is a larger force at work, which decides the outcome of any given circumstance in advance: fate. Jupiter admits to the other gods at one point that fate is the one thing even the gods, with all their superpowers, cannot change. Prophecies, which predict events to come, are always right in Metamorphoses because fate preordains events. Ocyrhoe's prediction that Apollo's son Aesculapius will become "healer of all the world" in Book 2 comes to fruition in Book 15, when he saves Rome from a deadly plague.

Tiresias also accurately predicts the demise of Pentheus and Narcissus. Just because fate is so important doesn't mean that people and gods don't assert themselves as if they have free will. The gods often act on instinct to demonstrate their power, as if it were theirs to control. Mortals do the same as they fight, love, and sometimes defy the gods, with gusto. There is simply too much vitality in Metamorphoses for it to feel like a world in which everything has been decided in advance. The idea of free will may be folly in a universe ruled by fate, but even if the gods and men are simply deluding themselves that they act on their own behalf, it is an exciting world.

Questions for Themes

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